Wednesday, May 12, 2010

[Interview] David Moore from Abaddon/Solaris

Who: David Moore

Bio: David Thomas Moore emigrated from Australia in 1994, and has lived, worked and studied in the UK ever since. A life-long devotee of fantasy, science-fiction and horror and sporadically published in online magazines and fanzines, he is very excited to be working as an editor on the Abaddon Books imprint. He is a dedicated role-player and board-gamer, is married and lives in Reading. There is no truth to the rumour that he is an Australian Special Forces forward agent, sent to infiltrate your media prior to a full-scale invasion.

Work: He is with Abaddon Books & Solaris Books, bringing you awesome books each month.

Why: Because I love industry people.


Hello, David. Thank you for accepting my interview invitation and welcome to the halls of Temple Library Reviews. I am most honored to have you here. How are you doing?

Very polite of you! It’s an honour to be here.

And fine and fit, thank you, Harry. I’ve just enjoyed a very lazy weekend in the sun. I hope you’re well?

You are an editor over at Solaris and Abaddon as well. As a matter of fact, the whole team is stretched between the two imprints. How did it come to this dual work arrangement?

Necessity’s the mother of invention, I suppose. Jon Oliver ran the Abaddon imprint solo for four years, and was pretty stretched for a lot of the time. Then our esteemed fellows over at BL Publishing put the Solaris imprint on the market and Rebellion decided to invest in it. It was obvious Jon would need extra hands, so Rebellion set about recruiting a desk editor to take on Abaddon while Jon focused on Solaris, which brings me into the picture.

No plan survives contact with the enemy, of course. The “Jon = Solaris/David = Abaddon” notion survived for exactly zero minutes. When I started, every Abaddon project was partway through and there was a pile of Solaris projects ready to kick off, so I was put on Andy Remic’s Hardcore right away. Jenni Hill was taken on to e-book the back catalogue and was so consistently brilliant she was kept on as junior editor, and she was put on the Solaris backlog too. And as Editor-in-Chief, Jon’s the commissioning editor for both imprints, so sometimes it’s just Jenni and me doing the grunt work for both imprints while he sifts through submissions.

Since then, we’ve all three of us jumped between the two imprints as needs dictated.

What are your primary functions at Solaris/Abaddon as an editor?

It’s a mixed bag, really. Every manuscript – once Jon’s signed off on it – needs an initial readthrough to look for glaring issues (“but why does she save his life in Chapter 1 if the twist at the end is she was trying to kill him all along?”), which we’ll usually just bounce straight back to the author to fix. Jon does a lot of these as part of the commissioning process, but sometimes, for the second or third book in a series, we’ll grab that one.

The second step is a copy-edit. This is the real grind of the editorial process: red pen in hand, nose pressed to the manuscript, picking up on style, continuity, voice and tone, and as many of the spelling and grammar errors as we can. Then the manuscript goes back to the author to agree or reject the changes – and we have a bit of an argument if they’ve rejected too many changes – and we put it into proofs.

Then the third step is the proof-read, when we go through with a fine-tooth comb and purely look for spelling, grammar and punctuation; try and make sure the book that hits the shelves is perfect. Of course, perfection is a lofty ideal, but the less chance there is of you noticing an error, the better we feel. All in all, we prefer it if no one member of the team does all three jobs for the same book – you get proper brain-fatigue, and are more likely to skip over errors – so maybe Jon will read through one book, Jenni will edit it and I’ll proof it, and next time maybe Jenni will read it, I’ll edit it and Jon will proof.

Then there’s the odd, fun stuff. Jenni and I have taken the Twitter and blog accounts on and try to keep them full of stuff to look at; I’m learning a lot about desk-top publishing, to take some of the pressure of the designers; our new Abaddon series, Malory’s Knights of Albion, was my baby, so I got to write the world-bible for that and I’m part of the commissioning process; I went with Jon to the SFX Weekender in February to represent the two imprints to the fan world; I even went to a photoshoot on a stud farm to take pictures of an armoured knight for the Malory covers. It’s never a boring job.

How did you become an editor and was the road a perilous quest, much similar to an epic fantasy adventure?

Ah, well. Raised as I was by simple pig-herders in the rural Black Forest, I first realized my destiny when a wise old man came to the village and told me I was, in truth, the son of an editor. He sent me on a quest to the utter east, to Stationery Mountain, to wrest the Red Pen from the Lord of Proofs. On the way I was to pick up a motley collection of travelling companions…


I actually worked in technology for ten years out of university, before coming to the realization that a) it wasn’t my bag, and b) what the heck did I do an English degree for? I hit up all my friends (bit of a tip for your readers: always hit your personal network; you’d be surprised who the people you know, know), and turned up a sniff of an opportunity at Rebellion. My CV went in with one hundred and forty-three others, and I had the good fortune to be selected for interview. Then it turned out I live on the road Jon used to live on and that we had friends in common, which was cool.

This had nothing to do with him giving me the job; I used powerful sedatives and suggestive conditioning for that.

You know, it seems pretty often that people recognize their vocation later in life and it takes years before they start working where they want. I think it’s because there is a notion that a job you enjoy is not a well paying job and it seems only too good to be true. The whole publishing industry is based on trickling profit, both for authors, editors and agents alike.

Partly it’s the money, sure. Graduates especially come out of university with a fat debt and a need for instant cash-flow, and the lure of an uninspiring corporate job with a respectable pay-packet is hard to ignore. I think you mostly manage by separating your working life from your (sadly unpaid) passions. But the other factor – and, of course, part of why dream jobs are so low-paying in the first place – is that competition for dream jobs is immense. They’re other people’s dreams as well… I really landed on my feet here at Rebellion, and even so, I had to beat a hundred and forty other guys for a five-grand pay-cut. Yay, me.

It takes a lot of guts to make a jump like that, all the more so later in life when you have families and mortgages.

Also, what do you find irresistible with speculative fiction that you decided to work in the field. What do these genres give you that others simply can’t?

I have always loved SF and fantasy. My earliest memories of reading are in genre fic. I’d probably have seized on any opportunity to work in publishing, but getting a job in a genre publisher was like ten Christmases all at once.

Reading and writing are exercises of the imagination; flights of fancy. Telling a story in exotic times and places, where the rules of the world are unfamiliar and need to be explored, both fires the imagination more and gives more opportunities to the author. It gives you a bigger palette, demands more of your vision. I love being part of that.

What role does the Bachelor in English play out, while job hunting? I imagine it is mandatory to have, but the question is whether the name of the university plays a role or if there is an evaluation, beforehand?

I suspect a publishing recruiter could answer that better than a publishing recruitee! Having an English degree is important – it shows, if nothing else, that you’re passionate enough about literature to dedicate three years of your life and accumulate a considerable debt to get a qualification with no obvious career progression associated with it – but where you went isn’t particularly germane. It’s certainly not as important as your experience (professional or otherwise), enthusiasm and presentation.

Couple of things to keep in mind when trying to impress prospective employers. Firstly, you’re applying for a job working with written documents, and you get to send two documents right away: your CV and covering letter. Make both as interesting, professional, well laid-out and perfect as you can. It’s essentially your first impression. Second, if you’re looking for your first job and damning the fact that all employers seem to want prior experience, realise that you probably have loads of experience, just not professional. Proofing and editing for friends, things you’ve written for your church group or hobby, letters you’ve checked for your boss. Find a way to draw attention to them.

By evaluation, do you mean a test? I didn’t have one, but they’re common. You get a short passage of text and are asked to proof-read or copy-edit it on the spot. The only trick here, unfortunately, is to know your stuff. If you have the time and can afford the modest fee, a correspondence course in either or both is an excellent investment. If not, googling “proofing marks” is a good start. Read through a good grammar reference, buy a popular style guide, and get to know what you’re looking for.

Since you started working as an editor, what is the revelation you discovered about fiction that you couldn’t possibly ever experience, if you weren’t an editor?

(laughs) Writers have very different ideas what constitutes “a first draft.”

We have some authors who obsessively edit and proof themselves, and send in works so clean they could almost go to press that day. We check them anyway, to be sure we’re happy with pace and to pick up the inevitable errors that sneak through, but these guys are a delight to work with.

Then we have authors who obviously think that, since we’re just going to go through it anyway, there’s no point them going through it as well, and send in a manuscript the second they’ve done typing “The End.” And you can really tell. Not that I particularly grieve about it, but there are authors you know in advance are going to need longer to turn around.

Orbit Books announced that they would launch a new service that provides short fiction by their authors. I am intrigued to see what other people from the industry think about this.

I’m really excited about it.

I grew up with science fiction – in the early ’eighties I’d scour my dad’s book collection, dredging out Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein – and my favourites were the collections of shorts. I spent about eight months reading every single one of Asimov’s short stories from the ’forties (aside from the handful that are forever lost), which took some doing. The ’eighties themselves were a great time for anthologists. I found all sorts of odd collections of short stories; I remember reading one called the Science-Fiction Olympics, which was all about sport-themed SF stories. It was a joy that I’d more or less forgotten until last year, when my wife bought me Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things, which I loved.

There’s a lot of talk about the economics of the short – especially with Orbit’s new digital short idea, which should open the industry up to taking a risk on less-well known authors more readily – but the short story format has a lot to say for itself anyway. Shorts are tighter, and sharper. You have to say everything you’d normally say, in a fraction of the space. They’re a better environment for comic SF writing, and for surprises and twists. And there’s a real “box of chocolates” joy to a collection of stories. Some are duff and some are brilliant, but you can never really resent the few pennies a short cost you, or the half hour or so you spent reading it, so you get the thrill of dipping in and seeing what you’ve got and never feel really disappointed, even if you do come across a lemon.

So, yeah. Really looking forward to it.

I can see this as a motivation to boost the interest into short fiction, which is certainly less popular than novel-length works. Do you agree?

With some reservations, sure.

For one thing, I’m not sure if short fiction’s as unpopular with readers as it is with publishers. In publishing, a lot of the selling power of your book is in the author’s name. Even when you’re publishing a new author, you regard it as an investment in a future bankable name. With an anthology, unless it’s all by the same author, you get twenty names all disappearing into the contents page, never to be seen again. Maybe you can bank on the anthologist – that’s why there were so many anthologies in the eighties with Asimov’s or Bradbury’s name slapped all over the front – but on the whole you have to hope the book sells on its own merits, where most books sell on the merit of the last one by that author. (You do it anyway, because you love the form, and you want to give authors the exposure, but the money guys are at your elbow asking you not to do too many.) It’s the same from a writer’s point of view. A short is about 5% as many words as a novel, but you get paid less than 5% as much as you get paid for a novel (given that you share the royalties with the anthologist as well as the other authors), and it definitely takes more than 5% as much time and labour as a novel. It’s fun, and most authors do it for exposure or the love of the thing, but it’s not something you want to do for a living.

The readers, I suspect – if my experience as a teenage geek was anything to go by – love short fiction. We’re too often asked to invest in a 900 page book (and then the next thirteen 900 page books in the series!); and a story that can draw you in, unfold and pay off in a tightly-disciplined five thousand words is pretty appealing. But you buy what’s on the shelves.

Magazines provided the perfect outlet for this, once. The short stories I loved so much in my youth got their first airing decades before in the pages of Amazing Stories and Astounding SF, long before they were packaged as collections. But the nature of the market changed, and it’s a lot harder to sell that kind of magazine for a reasonable price, pay authors competitively, and make a profit.

The digital age takes away a lot of the problems. You’re not paying for print or distribution, so the margins are a lot simpler. What the reader pays is more or less split between the author and the publisher, and while publishers are still a couple of years away from this really being profitable, you’re taking much less of a risk when you publish an unknown. Which means more risks, more stories, more authors and a much bigger box of chocolates.

It should be cool.

Speaking of anthologies, I would like to know how author collections fare in the market. Do publishers invest in such projects [with new names I mean, excluding Gaiman etc.] and is it likely to sign a brand new name with a collection first, a novel later. Or at the same time.

I don’t know the numbers, to be honest. I understand it depends very much on the author; a known “thinking person’s” author will tend to sell collections, because the fans enjoy the sort of neat little idea-bite that a short story enables; big-selling authors also sell collections, because fans are interested in seeing what they do with a different format. Having said that publishers can bank on big names on author collections – this is still true – we actually tend to prefer anthologies of different authors. It’s a more interesting artistic process for us, and the (admittedly small number of) regular anthology buyers tend to be in it specifically for the mix of talent. We’d hit a wider market with an author collection by a big name, but if we’ve got a big name, we might as well commission a novel.

No, we won’t tend to take a new author on with a collection first of all. You may get a crack at contributing to an anthology, or we may (if you’ve been very good) ask you to write a novel. An author collection is definitely something to base on an existing reputation.

Social media is booming. Twitter has given us voices to shout out on the second, while blogs have set up a platform for our opinions. The word of mouth model of marketing has picked up incredible speed and that certainly has influenced the publishing world. I’d like it, if we can start a conversation on this topic.

Okay. I think we can start with a flat (and unflattering) assertion: advertising blows.

I feel kind of hollow pimping the fruit of my fertile mind, when really I want it to succeed based on its self-evident awesomeness. I know how much it annoys me, when I keep stumbling across marketing shenanigans (no more than ten or twenty thousand times a day), and I sort of hate that I’m contributing unwanted advertising to other people’s lives. I’m better than that; what we create here in Abaddon and Solaris stands on its own.

At the same time, of course, I appreciate that what we make blends invisibly into a market of, I recently read, one hundred and fifty thousand books published every year in this country, most of them fiction. We have to pimp it, or no-one will read it, and really, I’m doing the artistic world a favour, because even if I have to resort to cheap, low-brow tactics to sell my excellent book, at least I know at the end of it you’re reading an excellent book! Hell, I’m helping!

How is this relevant to your question?

Well, how awesome is a mode of advertising that a) you’re only going to see if you’re interested (if you’ve followed or friended me or what-have-you), and b) you pass on for me? It’s so good! I love this stuff.

And there’s an immediacy, and a sincerity, to so much of it. Finding out about our latest book in a glossy full-page ad in a science-fiction magazine is cool; finding out in a review of one of our books is better; but finding out from the actual author’s personal blog, who’s talking about the experiences he went through writing it, and reading his banter with his editor on Twitter? That’s priceless. Which, I think, is why it catches the attention more than ads. It doesn’t feel like you’re hearing from a PR guy; you’re hearing from the people who are involved in, and care about, what they want you to buy into.

I can understand where this is coming from. It’s incompatible how art and business have to coalesce for the better of the author, the reader and the publisher. In order for the author to succeed and share his vision and touch his audience [I imagine that agents, editors and publicists all want that too.] he has to sell and in order to sell he has to market. There’s a great pressure on the authors these days to have their platforms.

Got it in one! Booksellers, publishers, editors and writers all want the same thing (to release a beautiful book that we’re all proud of) and we all need the same thing (to sell lots of books). You sometimes hear the cliché about writers and editors being at loggerheads – the big, bad editor that wants to ruin my life’s work – but most authors are really good about the obnoxious stuff we put them all through, because they understand we’re all in the same boat.

So we have to look at things from a marketing perspective. There are a lot of tricks – and I’m not going to tell you all of them; there are such things as industry secrets, after all – but the big thing is getting out there. Signings, conventions, advertising, interviews. It all mounts up. Stuff that makes us, and the writers, directly available to the readers is great. It’s more honest, more compelling, and – bluntly – more fun.

Of course the authors alone cannot influence the sales figures. Publishing houses and imprints do a hefty deal of the work, as far as I hear. However, is there a difference to what sort of marketing campaigns publishers can provide for their titles?

Ooh. There’s a bunch of stuff, and it depends on a lot of factors. A lot of it is in how much you’re willing to spend, which in turn depends on how much you’re likely to make, which in turn is affected by how well you market. It can be a bit of a vicious circle, and a lot of guess-work as to the potential sales is involved. Advertising, of course. Promotions through the retailers. Sending review copies to opinion-makers.

I have also read from editors’ personal blogs that the publishing model demands more or less for the publisher to emphasize on a single book as far as marketing goes [as the case was with Left Hand of God] to ensure at least one bestseller.

Well, you have to judge each book on its potential. If you have a big name, a lot of hype, it’s the second or third book in a successful series – the kind of stuff that’ll draw people to buy it – then it’s worth your while spending money on promoting it even more. If you don’t think it’ll sell as well, you promote it as much as you can as cheaply as you can, but you just can’t afford to spend a lot of money on pushing it and stay in business.

This is another place where social networking comes in. It’s free! We can push books we have a lot of faith in artistically, even if we know they’re less likely to be a hit, because the money guys don’t have a say in whether we do it or not.

I am not sure whether you accept unsolicited submissions over at Solaris/Abaddon, but if you have, have you ever encountered some startling and hilarious queries and what is the query you would want to see, in order to consider even reading a book?

Erk. Tricky one to answer without potentially offending our submitters.

We have had a submission from someone who wants to write a book about a popular singer’s genitals departing their host and embarking on a solo career. That was… odd.

The notorious answer from pretty much all publishers is “we don’t accept unsolicited submissions.” The way to do it is to get an agent, and get him or her to contact us. But, you know, if you know someone who knows someone, or can corner someone at a convention, you may as well mention it; we might be in a good mood. Especially if you buy a pint at the same time as mentioning it.

But assuming you’ve sorted out an agent, or cornered me at a con, then I’d say surprise me. Mix genres or conventions, add tones and styles. How about a cyberpunk book told from the point of view of the guys at the dizzy heights of the corporate chain rather than from the streets? How about a heroic fantasy set in colonial-era America? How about a vampire book where the vampire’s an actual goddamn bad guy? Catch me out and make me think, and I’ll read your proposal.

It is decided then, I will take you to the pub. I will be at FantasyCon this year. *hint, hint* But from what you just said it seems that you like something outside the ordinary genre canons. Crossed Genre is really picking up speed, isn’t it?

I’m doing all I can to get there. I look forward to the sweet, sweet taste of bribery beer.

Erm… I can sense another one of those “yes and no” answers sneaking up on me right now. As a reader, I love things that are original and startling, and that crosses genres; as an editor, it’s the kind of thing I dream of landing on my desk. As a publisher, we’d much prefer to see safe, easily categorised books that we can market to an existing buying public and move fifty thousand units. To an extent, then, we have to try and subvert the industry. An old standby is to commission something new and exciting, then package it like something old and reliable to trick people into buying it, confident in the knowledge that they’ll be blown away and want more of the same.

Of course, that bears fruit, which promotes imitators, and new genres are born. This where things like steampunk and cyberpunk come from.

(Why is it always “-punk”? We’ve brought out two military SF/men-versus-the-gods books; is this “godpunk”?)

But yeah, I think people are getting more adventurous. You still need to be cautious with the distributors and marketers – they don’t like stepping too far out of their safety zones – but it seems to me that readers are interested in being challenged, and new worlds to follow adventure in are coming to light all the time.

To retrace back to the submission stages, I know that you do not sign the new manuscripts and such, but what role does the hook have for you in a novel? Rookies are supposed to snare you immediately so they need a huge hook. Popular authors may not need them so much, since they have established a following. But I’d like another person from inside the industry to have a say on this matter.

Everyone needs a hook. Whether you’re a new author or an established author, whether you’re pitching to an agent, to a publisher, or to the buying public. It’s utterly vital at all times, for two reasons.

The first is because we’re all lazy. Or busy. Or busy and lazy. When I pick up a book as a reader, or an MS as an editor, I want to know before I even start reading, “Is this any good? Am I gonna want to read this?” And until I work out all the bugs in my patented BookTasteOMatic 2000™, all I have to go on is the hook. Commissioning editors are the same; they’ll receive a hundred proposals and have the time to read maybe ten for every one they commission, so the hooks are a good way of selecting which ones to weed out.

The second is it keeps you focused. A story needs to capture and hold the imagination; it needs a strong narrative and a clear theme. Basically, if you can’t sum it up in twenty words, then you probably don’t have a clear enough idea of what you want to write, and that will show when people go to read it.

Are you a novelist by any chance?

Would you believe “aspiring”? I’ve been published a little in short-form and in articles. I am, like most people who work in publishing, planning a novel right now. And no, I’m not gonna tell you what it’s about.

Feel free to conclude this interview in your own words.

Well, this seems to have become more of an “aspiring writer’s questions answered” interview than I expected, so I guess I’ll tell any aspiring writer reading this good luck, and godspeed. Remember to write every day, to trust almost everyone else’s opinions of your book more than your own, and not to give up the dream.

And thank you, Harry. You’ve been a gracious host, and this has been a fun interview. I look forward to coming back.

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